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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

You Might Not Know Their Names, but You Know Their Inventions

By Paul Niemann

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[January 31, 2008]  Today we honor a group of great Americans, most of whom did not receive the fame and recognition that many of their peers received. In fact, many of them had to overcome great obstacles just to do their jobs. This group includes Lewis Latimer, Garrett Morgan, Sarah Breedlove Walker, Elijah ("The Real") McCoy, George Crum, Dr. Charles Richard Drew and many others. What do they have in common?

For one thing, they were all great inventors.

Yet you won't find the names of Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell or the Wright Brothers anywhere on this list of great inventors. What kind of story about great inventors could possibly exclude some of the best of all time?

That would be like discussing the greatest baseball players of all time without mentioning Babe Ruth. Or great presidents without mentioning Abraham Lincoln. Or great war heroes without mentioning the French. Oh, sorry -- wrong joke.

The inventors profiled in this story were all black, and February is Black History Month. When people think of black inventors, the first name that usually comes to mind is that of George Washington Carver. But Carver never had the opportunity to work for Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. There is only one person who worked for both, and that is Lewis Latimer; he invented the carbon filament that went into Edison's incandescent light, and he also drafted the blueprints for Bell's telephone. Latimer was born to former slaves in 1848, and his father's light skin once enabled him to pass himself off as a plantation owner.

The fact that Judy Reed was illiterate didn't stop her from becoming one of the first two black women to obtain patents. She patented a hand-operated machine for kneading and rolling dough in 1884. The second was Chicago resident Sarah Goode, who patented a cabinet bed a year later.

Sarah Breedlove Walker was a teenage mother and then a 20-year-old widow, but that didn't stop her from developing a complete line of hair care and beauty products in the early 1900s. She parlayed her business into a fortune and became America's first female black millionaire -- a modern-day Oprah -- and went on to share her wealth with black charities.

There were times in the 1800s when slaves were not allowed to own property, and this included patents. It wasn't until 1861 when, ironically, a Confederate law gave slaves the right to own patents. Nine years later, all black inventors -- male and female -- had the right to own patents.

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Benjamin Banneker's grandmother was an indentured servant, and his grandfather was a slave. Yet in 1753 he built the first watch made in America. He also wrote the Farmer's Almanac for six years, sending his first one to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. The irony is that Jefferson himself was a slave owner (and an inventor). Ah, the things that you learn from reading your local newspaper every day.

Blacks don't face as many obstacles today as they did in the 1700s and 1800s, but they still don't have the name recognition that they deserve. All of the following 10 inventions were created by black inventors. How many can you name?

  1. Crop rotation

  2. Traffic light

  3. Gas mask

  4. Fountain pen

  5. Lawn mower

  6. Typewriter

  7. Golf tee

  8. Automatic gear shift

  9. Potato chips

  10. Blood bank that served as a model for the Red Cross blood banks

Here's the list again, this time with the names of the inventors:

  1. Crop rotation -- George Washington Carver

  2. Traffic light -- Garrett Morgan

  3. Gas mask -- Garrett Morgan again

  4. Fountain pen -- William Purvis

  5. Lawn mower -- John Burr

  6. Typewriter -- Lee Burridge

  7. Golf tee -- Dr. George Grant

  8. Automatic gear shift -- Richard Spikes

  9. Potato chips -- George Crum

  10. Red Cross blood bank -- Dr. Charles Richard Drew, who was also the first director of the Red Cross

Earlier in this column, we listed several Hall of Fame (white) inventors, but only six black inventors have been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame up to now.


Copyright Paul Niemann 2008 

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